Friday, May 9, 2008

The Bottle Tree (Birmingham, Alabama)

We've been on the road for a little over a week now and I'm starting to get a sense of just how varied this vast country is. After a brief stop in Bloomington, Indiana to visit friends and a couple of days in Nashville (yes, we do go to the Grand Ole Opry and yes, it is bonkers and genius all at once) we find ourselves in Birmingham to take in some history.

Through some careful research, Bobs has hunted down a veggie friendly place called The Bottle Tree and the night we're due to be in town tapes n tapes are playing. We figure this could be a great night out so we plan to find the venue, get some food, find a hotel and head back for the show.

And then my heart sinks. I know I'm not an authority and I'm aware I'm making this judgement based on a 30 minute drive but Birmingham seems to be a city in bits. As we drive through the town to find the venue, the scale of poverty is something I've never witnessed in a European city. And, of course, the people in the most run down areas are exclusively black. The next day we visit the Civil Rights Institute and it's an awe inspiring place filled with stories of dignity, strength and the potential for humans to display sheer guts and fight for freedom in the face of tyranny. But why have the people of Birmingham not been liberated from this crushing poverty?

Eventually, we find the venue and it is a great little place. Nice selection of veggie food, good range of board games to waste time on, a cool indie band sound checking in the next room and a great little patio where the Birmingham hipsters seem to have congregated. Something's not quite right though and it's blindingly obvious what it is. The guy working the bar and taking our order is deeply unpleasant. Nothing manifest, just his attitude and manner. This guy really stinks. His conversation is fouled by constant expletives of the most offensive type and the overall vibe he gives off is that of a jock trapped in a tattooed punker's body.

The veggie burger is really poor also. It's a black bean burger but seems to taste of very little. The salad has seen better days, the bun is inoffensively bland and the presentation is shockingly bad.

Our quest for a nearby hotel fails and we end up in a budget motel a fair bit away. It's depressing as hell. We skip the show and vow to get up and do good stuff the next day. We do. And my faith in humanity is restored.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Flying Saucer (Humboldt Park, Chicago)

I have taken leave of New York and embarked on my very first road trip. First stop is Chicago where, in a couple of days time, I'm renting a car and driving just over 1000 miles South to New Orleans.

Chicago, like DC, is another of those places that I feel I know. Popular culture has filled my mind with images of the city, from its skyline and excesses to its ghettos and social problems, you don't have to cast your gaze too far to catch a glimpse of this city. I also have a feel for the place as I was a long time subscriber to the excellent Punk Planet magazine. What started as a magazine documenting and commenting on the, mainly American, punk rock scene, Punk Planet seemed to grow up with me and its focus moved to include left field political groups and issues. Essentially, it was a space for important, oppositional voices which could not find or maybe did not want, inclusion in mainstream media.

Punk Planet was awesome and I looked forward to it each month. It has now fallen victim of the decline in independent media and I miss it. Not exactly a tragedy but a huge disappointment,

Talking of disappointments, I'm pretty fired up to try my first veggie burger on the road. When we get to Chicago our amazing hosts have a huge pile of Time Outs and it doesn't take too long to find a recommendation for the number 1 veggie burger in Chicago. So, we trot off to Humblodt Park and find the Flying Saucer. It seems to be in a fairly desolate part of town and finding it is no easy task. But find it we do and as we step in we instantly feel at home. This place feels like a very cool East Village diner. The decor is nice, the girl serving has the requisite asymmetrical haircut and the boys have the fashion beards of choice. Foals (seriously, they were playing down the road) are at the table next to us and they don't look out of place.

We get the menu and my heart sinks. It's the weekend. It's brunch. There's no veggie burger. But as the old song says, "you've got to accentuate the positive" and I notice they have a veggie version of something I thought I'd never get to taste... Biscuits and gravy! And it's pretty good. I've nothing to judge it against so I won't pretend it's the greatest meal ever and it does feel like it's doing my dietary system no favours at all. But it was really tasty and well priced for a whole heap of food.

I liked Chicago. We did some obvious tourist stuff but, never having been there before, I felt that was important. And it's good to be out of New York to see how the rest of this vast and varied country gets along. Next stop the airport to hire the car and South to Bloomington, Indiana.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

7A (East Village/Alphabet City)

"This used to be the grandest part of town.
Now it's all scuffed up, subsiding into the ground"

Faded Glamour by Animals that swim is as close to the perfect pop song as anything I've ever heard. Its description of a place once buzzing with life is quintessentially English so it's strange that it rings through my head as I step onto the boardwalk at Coney Island.

I love this place. Nothing about it appears organised or uniform. There seems to be nothing plane or plumb. But you can feel the romance in every loose board of wood and the charm in every rusted rail. The smells are almost tangible. The sea air, the fried food and the grease from the fairground combine to summon up memories of youth. I feel very alive here with a heightened sense of past and future.

Coney Island has slipped from being the place to be to being an antiquated curiosity. One frequently threatened by the destructive impulses of progress and homogenisation.
Alphabet City in Manhattan has gone the other way. Once spoken of as a no-go area for tourists, gentrification has been good to this place and, sitting on the terrace outside 7A, it feels like it's populated by a microcosm of all the different strains of cool the world has to offer.

When the sun shines, 7A (on the corner of... Oh, I don't need to tell you) is a beautiful spot to sit and engage in some people watching. It's Friday night and we're getting some sustenance for the night ahead. My burger fulfills this roll amply. There's a great "meaty" patty that comes with awesome sauteed mushrooms and lettuce and tomato. I choose to add monterey jack cheese and ask them to hold the cress (I've nothing against the flavour but I can't abide the texture). It really is stunning. There's a lot going on in there but it's all good and results in a heck of a satisfying burger. Across from me Bobs, looking stunning in her new wayfarers, has cheese and spinach ravioli and gives it a huge thumbs-up. We have a couple of beers and some red wine and it all comes to around 50 bucks with tip. Good times!

Oh, I'm still exclusively listening to music released by Matador records in the mid to late nineties. I'm currently becoming dangerously obsessed with the mighty Chavez.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Shake Shack (Madison Square Park)

There are certain days where New York seems like a truly magical place. 

It's the hottest day of the year, my two day hangover has gone, Bobs is back in town after a brief spell in Ireland and we have nothing to do but walk around, sit about and soak it all up.

Madison Square Park rests in the shadows of the Flatiron building and despite the proximity to really busy parts of the city, this little Square is a casual, relaxed space. In one corner of the Square, partially obscured by the branches of enclosing trees, sits The Shake Shack. You just know it's gonna be good as the line is at least 50 people long and it does take us a good half hour from deciding to queue to taking our first bite. Wow! That first bite is something else. Unlike any other veggie burger I've had before, this is a deep fried treasure of portobello mushroom and melted muenster and cheddar cheese. The flavours are not subtle and the pleasure is far from guilt free but these are the thoughts furthest from my mind as I consider another 30 minute wait for another one.

But I'm convinced that one is enough and we continue our day filled with lots of little, unplanned adventures.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop (Lower East Side)

As a rule I tend not to enjoy cultural products that win awards. The records I listen to don't win Grammys, the books I read don't pick up Booker awards and the movies I enjoy certainly don't win Oscars (I make an exception for No Country for Old Men but I maintain that that's because it was so faithful to the novel rather than as a result of anything The Coens added to it).

The Big Mack Daddy burger at Tiny's, on the corner of Norfolk and Rivington is frequently referred to as one of the best in the city and has been voted the very best on at least one occasion.
It's literally round the corner from us so we call in the order and dander round to collect it a little later. The sandwich is really nicely packaged and is such a good size that it makes sense that it's cut in to two halves. But there's something not quite right about it. On paper it should be great. A soft brioche bun, a generous patty and all the good stuff like lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles. Then it hits me. It's the special sauce. Heavy on the mustard, it's overpowering on the bites overflowing with it and somehow bland on the bites where it's absent.

You know, it's not bad. It just needs a little balance. And I'm a fair guy. I should tell you their grilled cheese sandwich is amazing and Bobs is a huge fan of the crab cake sandwich.

Later that night I head down to The Bowery Ballroom for Nina Nastasia and Jim White. I love Nina's song writing. It's a bleak, desolate sound and her voice, Southern and affecting, has the ability to drag long hidden emotions out of the listener. Combine this with Jim's drumming (if you haven't seen him play live do it the first chance you get) and the show becomes a low key spectacular.

I should also mention that I recently picked up a second hand copy of the soundtrack to the movie Half-Cocked. Featuring Rodan, Unwound, Versus, Slant 6 and Helium among others, I'm reminded that music has never been better that it was in 1995.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Union Hall (Park Slope)

It's Thursday and I haven't had a veggie burger since Sunday. But the post-DC health kick is over and I'm ready to return to my righteous path. My friends from Belfast, a killer pop duo called Oppenheimer, are in town for a show at Union Hall and a quick look at their web-site ( tells me they have a veggie burger on the menu. Seems like I can kill two birds with the one stone.

Union Hall is a great bar situated on Union Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I get the F from the Lower East Side to 4th Avenue and walk North noticing the contrast between the fairly desolate and grim 4th Avenue and the fashionable 5th. Union Hall certainly has more in common with the cool end of things. The feel of the place is like an old sitting room with antique furniture, low tables and even the odd chaise longe. However, toward the back of the room there's a couple of bocce courts (no, me neither but it's kinda like bowls - the European not the American variety) which people seem to be enjoying but doesn't really look like a lot of fun.
When my burger arrives I have a realisation. This isn't the end of my health kick. This thing not only tastes good but it seems to be made from really healthy ingredients. The patty is formed from fresh roast vegetables, there's no cheese in sight and the fries are the sweet potato variety which just seem to have a little more goodness about them. It also has a nice unique flavour thanks to some chipotle aioli smeared on a sesame bun. Good stuff all round, my only complaint being that the bar is pretty crowded and I have to eat my food off my lap.

Then it's downstairs where the cheap cans of PBR which accompany the rock show really do put an end to the health kick. The oppenheimers are on top form. Traveling the length and breadth of the US with They Might Be Giants has transformed them from a polite indie-pop band into a much edgier entity. The guitars growl as well as fizz and the drums are hit harder than ever before. That said, Shaun's vocals and Rocky's synth lines ensure the audience never has to listen too hard or wait too long for the next pop thrill.

A damn fine burger and a damn fine night out, as Special Agent Dale Cooper might say.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Reef (Washington DC)

Before last weekend I had never been to DC but I feel like I've spent a lot of time there in my head. My main job is a high school teacher specialising in Politics so I've explained to classes about the roles and functions of the different branches of the US political system. I've talked at great length about how the Legislators in Capitol Hill sit at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and keep a literal and metaphorical watch on the Executive just down the road in The White House (with the Supreme Court peeping in from behind to make sure everyone's playing fair in the complex game of checks and balances). But I'd never seen it for myself.

I also have a lot of time and respect for the punk rock scene in DC. Primarily revolving around the Dischord record label, it seems that this small city produces a disproportionately large number of incredible bands. And all done in a way which deviates from the norms of contemporary corporate behaviour and guarantees the artists full control over their music.

Whether you believe this is the seat of the greatest democracy in the world or the home of a quasi-fascist state which, as Cheney as much as admitted with his "so?" comment, amounts to little more than an elected dictatorship where the citizens can only influence public policy every four years, this is an awesome town to visit. The buildings and monuments are stunning, the nightlife seems great and the whole feel of the city is just relaxed and friendly.

I visited The Reef ( on 18th Street in the Adams-Morgan district for Sunday brunch and instantly fell in love with the place. We got a seat at the bar as a friend we were in town to visit is a regular and I can see why this would become some sort of secular, church-like, sunday morning experience. The bar staff have names and personalities and really know how to treat the customers. The place itself has so much character. We were sitting on a heated and mostly covered rooftop where there was very little uniformity but an abundance of charm. The place seems to operate in a cool manner too, for instance there's a discount if you live in the local area. And the burger..?

They have a choice of a straight ahead veggie burger or a vegan burger. I got the latter but opted to get blue cheese with it. It was a super tasty nut-cutlet type burger with just the right amount of cheese (too much of that blue stuff could over-power everything else), some lightly fried onions, quality lettuce and tomato and a superior bun. Served with perfectly seasoned fries, this truly was the brunch of champions. Our coffee was fresh and topped up regularly and as we were on a rooftop on the sunniest day of the year so far we got a couple of mimosas. Awesome food, good company and quite simply a magical way to kick start a sunday afternoon!

A must-do if you're in the area!

Other DC shout outs!
I got to see Rick from drive like jehu and hot snakes' new band. They're called obits and, although there's something a little more classic rock going on, they still know how to kick up a storm. And that voice! Wow!
I visited an incredible, independent record store. Crooked Beat ( is actually just down the road from The Reef and they have great stock, an amazing selection of music from the local DC area and, most importantly, the guy behind the counter was very friendly and chatted about a bunch of stuff.
Finally, I did go to another great veggie restaurant called Vegetate ( on 9th Street NW. This was a little more up market so no veggie burger on the menu but my risotto with cashew cream and truffle oil was pretty great.

Seriously, if you get the chance, go visit DC and while you're there go to The Reef and call into Crooked Beat. But don't forget about the obvious stuff. It's pretty cool too.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Zen Burger

If you want to get a good analysis of contemporary culture you can do a lot worse than start with the writing of George Ritzer. Ritzer, best known for "The McDonaldization of Society", is greatly influenced by the 19th Century sociologist Max Weber. Weber predicted that much of what was seen as progress would actually lead us into a future where we might live constrained by an "iron cage of rationality". Essentially, he felt bureaucratic organisation and rational thinking would replace magic, freedom and creativity.
Ritzer suggests that this is most obviously played out in a McDonald's restaurant. However, he suggests that this style of business and interaction is becoming more and more evident in other social settings. Ultimately (best documented in his "The Globalization of Nothing") he suggests our lives are increasingly characterised by non-interactions with non-people in non-places. Scary stuff!

It's with this in mind that I hop on the F train up town and visit Zen Burger on 45th and Lex. Zen Burger has aspirations of being a chain like Mcdonald's. Although there are currently only two (the other being in California) their website has information for anyone who might be interested in becoming a franchisee. It certainly looks and feels like a McDonald's with its garish colours and row of workers willing to "take your order" but as soon as I walk in I kinda like it. I remember that, as a kid, this sort of thing was a treat. I was in my early teens when my home town of Belfast got its first McDonald's and it felt special and exotic.
Of course, as I got older and ideological objections got in the way I, like everyone else I knew, began to hate it. The only McDonald's I've been to in the last ten years is in Athlone, as it has a bathroom and is about midway on the drive from Dublin to Galway.
But I feel OK in Zen. The workers seem a little happier and everything seems "right on".
So the food? I got the basic "beef" burger but the range of options is awesome. Pick an animal? Zen has the fake equivalent of it. The patty does seem kinda cheap but this is fast food and at $7 for a meal you can't be too choosy. The bun is whole meal, the vegetables are fresh and the fries are... Well exactly like those in McDonald's which everyone loves but us vegetarians have heard too many horror stories about to try. 
All in all, this is what it is. Fast food. But it is all veggie, seems to have a social conscience and is  really good value for a quick bite on the hop.

Post-burger I'm joined by Bobs for two very different musical experiences. We start our evening in the basement of Bloomingdales with free apple martinis (good) and the virgins (getting better) and then move on to Webster Hall for The Gutter Twins...
Random Gutter Twins lyric generator... Darkness. Baby. Yeah. Drowning. Baby. Soul. Fire. Woman. Evil. Satan. Baby... 
C'mon boys, this feels like an act. You're grown men! Enough with the sinister act. Even Nick Cave's lightened up a bit and he invented this schtik. The music is frequently incredible but it's just hard to take the chuckle brothers seriously. Ho hum. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Pink Pony

Last night was pretty tough. I was feeling a little delicate as my friends from back home, ash, were in town the night before and drinks were taken. Bobs too wasn't in top form as she's recovering from a nasty flu.
Neither of us was in the mood for cooking so eating out was the only solution.
Staying local, as it looked like rain, we went to The Pink Pony on Ludlow Street. My friend Jeff once commented that this was his favourite street in the world and there is a stack of cool places on it.
It worked out well for Bobs and me as I got to look at some vintage guitars and she got to check out some kinda pricey clothes in Shop on Stanton on the way there.
I like The Pink Pony. It was the first place Bobs took me when I visited her for the first time last year and their veggie burger is a winner. The burger itself is fine but it's what comes with it that makes it a treat. A really fresh bun, really crunchy lettuce and onion and a choice of 4 cheeses. I went for Swiss (why would you have brie on a burger?) and there was plenty of it.
The burger comes with a choice of shoestring fries or home fries. I chose the latter but due to a mix-up got both. The shoestrings are a little bizarre. It's a bit like the chef has put some air in the fryer. There is no potato whatsoever. The home fries are great though. They're more like a boiled potato that's been quickly introduced to the pan to get some crunch and seasoning.
Bobs wanted protein so got the salmon. It was served on a bed of  risotto with a red wine sauce which I had a nibble off and certainly was good.
The price was pretty good. Less than 10 bucks for the burger which is great as it feels more like a restaurant than a cafe. So, we headed home, hunger satiated and my hangover gone.
That night we watched Out-foxed... Not so good.


This is the first post on my first blog. Forgive me while I get to grips with the technology. It will get better over time as I learn to add links, upload photos and do other things to fancy it up a little.
The subject is veggie burgers. I've been in New York a lot over the last year and have had a lot of good veggie burgers and some which have not reached the standard. 
I am not a food critic. My knowledge is limited. I couldn't really tell you the difference between TVP and Quorn but I know veggie burgers and I know a good one when I have it.
I will be in New York for the next month and I'm gonna make it my business to eat as many veggie burgers as possible. Then the veggieblogger will be on tour. Heading South, my main objective is to visit the Faulkner House but there will be opportunities to sample some burgers along the way. Then there's talk of Argentina and maybe Brazil. I predict, although I may be wrong, that the job of the veggieblogger will become more difficult as the trip proceeds.
My companion throughout all this and my reason for being in New York is my girlfriend Bobs. She too knows a good burger but has sometimes been known to go for the meat variety.